Sunday, April 22, 2012

"LEEDing" Us Into a New Age: Sustainability as a Marketing Ploy

By Adam Schiffmacher 

“But now sustainability is such a political category that it's getting more and more difficult to think about it in a serious way. Sustainability has become an ornament.”
                        -Rem Koolhas

Remember yo-yos, snap bracelets, scooters, POGs and even North Face fanny packs?  The one thing they all had in common is that they were once fads, trends people felt compelled to follow to be “in style.”  Has the “green” movement shown itself to be such a fad, or is there really something to this whole global warming and living sustainably thing? 

As we take in the plethora of articles telling us how to become more "green" today, there exists a lot of confusion when it comes to embracing the “going green” mantra as to what is actually doing good for the environment and what is in fact a marketing ploy.  Almost equal to “social media” activism, as some of my fellow writers have discussed in previous articles, companies label or advertise the eco-consciousness of their respective products at a markup, thus making the consumer feel like they themselves are making a difference while gaining a sizable profit.  The styrofoam Dunkin' Donuts cup you buy everyday negates owning a hybrid.

Creating a truly sustainable society means a comprehensive re-evaluation of how we live, work, and play utilizing the resources that we have harnessed. Living sustainably encompasses every aspect of our lives, from whether we choose to utilize mass transit or singular cars, to whether we choose imported and processed foods over locally grown and more organically made foods. 

“Going green” itself may very well be a coinable marketing term, but living sustainably will emerge as an integral part of future design, construction, and manufacturing processes."

One such ambitious project to completely re-imagine how a city would function is the planning and construction of Masdar, a city being designed by architects at Foster and Partners, famous for many local and international projects that challenge the conventional thinking of how architecture integrates and affects our everyday lives. Masdar is being constructed about 20 miles outside of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and is slated to be the world's first zero carbon, zero waste city.  To preserve its zero emission strategy the city has banned typical combustion engine vehicles, leaving them to the outskirts of the city's perimeter and allowing incoming visitors to take part in their self-driven, subterranean fleet of electric cars. Below is a video explaining the project in detail. 

    Although groundbreaking, and in some cases idealistic, the concept of Masdar in itself hasn’t been without its challengers.  Critics decry its extreme use of technology and its intentional separation from the cities and “real world” around it, arguing that while the city is in fact partially built and in operation now for members of the Masdar company, it does not accurately tackle the issue of dealing with the poor and lower class.  Masdar continues its construction and looks to set a precedent for the future of new city design and planning, looking to be fully occupied by 2030.  Masdar may be one of the more positive, albeit controversial, implementations of "green" standards but its implications could be marketed positively for the case on changing our lifestyle to be more sustainable.

    A more recent local administrative development, developed in 2000 by the USGBC (United States Green Building Council), is the LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design system.  This system was created to identify and implement green building design, construction, operation, and maintenance solutions into newly built environments.  The LEED system works through an independent third-party organization, verifying that projects meet requirements on a rating scale of 1-100 in several different environmental categories, from site design to building efficiency.  It offers certification levels labeled "Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum." 

    While the LEED system helps increase awareness and practice of green building techniques, it isn’t necessarily the most sustainable option, as it still scores the efficient use of fossil fuels much higher than the use of sustainable energy practices.  The LEED system rating has been sought after by clients and architects because it can be used as a marketing ploy to improve the image of a business or enterprise that in turn showcases the companies willingness to help improve the environment, which in appearance, is what the customer wants. 

    The criticisms of the LEED system reveal its inadequacy to encourage a shift in cultural values towards living in a more sustainable world, rather instilling a complex method of building instructions that while may indeed be "green," aren't all common sense options and definitely are not known by all contractors.  The USGBC is releasing an update of the LEED system this year (aptly titled LEED 2012), which intends to draw upon the last 12 years of the LEED program's results and solicit changes to improve the system.

    So far, the case for starting over from the ground up and building a new model for  sustainable living has been viewed through the example of the Middle Eastern city Masdar and the push for newly built environmental consciousness of green principles through the LEED system.  These may have heightened awareness to design construction/implementation and introduced newer, more efficient technologies, but at what cost?

    But what if we adopted simple changes based on basic construction and design techniques utilizing local materials, technology, and typology, thus changing the business model of production to benefit locally grown, organic foods and limiting urban sprawl by encouraging mass transit over personal car use?

   While cities all around the United States may never be on the same page politically, socially, or economically, it is imperative to our survival  that we learn how to better communicate and utilize the environment more efficiently as we grow as a country.  Whether we become more connected with nature through development of systems such as LEED and precedents such as Masdar, or discover new organisms (i.e. plastic-eating mushrooms) to help us reduce waste, it is important to remember that it needs to happen.

     It is only in this way that "going green" will disappear is by being incorporated into our lives, so that we lose the fad of the green movement and gain the eco-consciousness of living sustainably.  The faster we do this, the faster we'll realize that truly the only way to save the Earth is to work together and save ourselves first.

Happy Earth Day, everyone. 

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